the mathematics of cooperation

Using mathematics to tackle some of biology's biggest questions, Martin Nowak has concluded that an ability to cooperate is the secret of humanity's success. He talks to Michael Marshall about drawing fire from Richard Dawkins, the perils of punishment, and devising the mathematical equivalent of the rules of religion:

competing thoughts on wgbh

Our seven-minute documentary Competing Thoughts is one of the films featured in the WGBH Lab Showcase. The film looks at healthy and less healthy forms of competition, and offers some alternatives.

More about the people and subjects in the film:

film pitch

Here is the film pitch, description, and approach we submitted to WGBH for Competing Thoughts.


This is the first in a series of video essays drawing from my research on competition. I'll use pickup soccer, a game I've enjoyed for 25 years, as a microcosm of competition in our increasingly global culture. A rare hub of race, class, and sometimes gender, pickup soccer is arguably one of the most diverse gatherings in Boston. And it strikes a rare balance between competition and cooperation.

This sort of balance doesn't exist in other forms of competing I've experienced: in my family, school, workplace, and just about everywhere else. In this film I'll discuss the pros and cons of competition, and alternatives to it.

Style or Approach

My reflections on soccer and mixed feelings about competition will be the thematic center of the film. I'll weave in quotes, interviews, and audio from people on all sides of the debate: educators, economists, psychologists, athletes, and others. I'll include original and archival footage of the many contests we engage in, and look at ways competition both helps and hurts us.

I'll examine alternatives such as collaborative learning, cooperative workplaces, and non-competitive games, and incorporate shared footage from the public domain and licensed through Creative Commons.

soccer and social change

There are some great social change efforts built around soccer:
  • Soccer Without Borders, a group based in San Fransisco whose mission is to "expand the potential of soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of marginalized youth."
  • Mondiali Antirazzisti, the Antiracist World Cup
  • Grassroot Soccer, which "uses the power of soccer in the fight against AIDS" primarily in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana.
  • Soccer in the Streets, based in Atlanta, "teaches less advantaged kids to make positive choices in life so as to better themselves, their families and communities through soccer."

cooperative learning

For almost a century researchers have been studying the benefits of cooperative learning, where students must work together to achieve goals. Much of the research indicates that students in cooperative learning environments show higher levels of reasoning, more effective problem solving, and higher self-esteem. The number of teachers who use cooperative learning models in their classes has been on the rise for decades, but most classrooms are still frenetically competitive environments.

I've been most impressed by the work of David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota, who have been studying and teaching cooperative learning techniques since the 1970's and founded the Cooperative Learning Center. According to them, one of the five key elements to cooperative learning is called positive interdependence -- students are interlinked in such a way that one cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds.

In one particularly convincing study, the Johnson's did a meta-analysis reviewing all available studies from 1924 to 1980. Sixty-five of the studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively, eight found the reverse, and 36 found no significant difference.

pros and cons

Most writers tout the value of competition, especially in business. Go to any bookstore and you're bound to find a few books about understanding and beating your competitors, competing in global markets, and so on.

But some writers and researchers have described the negative consequences of competition on people and society. In No Contest, Alfie Kohn draws on the work of hundreds of these researchers. He writes that "our struggle to defeat each other - at work, at school, at play, and at home - turns us all into losers" and that competition "doesn't motivate us to do our sabotages self-esteem and ruins relationships."


I just played chess for the first time in a while with a friend of mine. Chess has a certain purity as a competitive game that has been revered for centuries - all strategy, they say.

The opening ritual was familiar. We chatted about rules, strategy, experience. This was the pre-game.

Then we took our places. We had one of those chess clocks to keep the game moving. He started it, and became my opponent. We were focused, strategic, invested, tense, relieved, unsure, sure. There were threats, escapes, mistakes, successes, gains, losses. It was exhilarating, like soccer.

And again, something was at stake. I definitely wanted to win, and so did he - our faces and bodies were clear about this. It seemed we were either focused on attack, preparing for attack, or evading attack. There was something primeval about it.

rule changes

With some games, it can be as fun to break the rules as to follow them.

Pool: Years ago some friends and I went to a pool hall with only a dollar - enough for one game at a table that took quarters - but we wanted to stay longer than that. So we decided that the object should be to NOT get any of the balls in the pockets. Suddenly it was a cooperative effort - we relied on each other - and we kept the game alive for hours... (until the bartender caught on)

Chess: Someone told me they couldn't find all their chess pieces one day, so they grabbed a box of Pepperidge Farm "Chessmen" cookies and played with those. If you capture a piece you get to eat it. And apparently the famous chessmaster Bobby Fischer doesn't like to play for fun these days unless you randomize the back row; this variation is called Fischer Random Chess.

Tic-tac-toe: This is a game that begs to have its rules changed. You can start by not taking turns, then changing the goal, or changing the board, or playing with multiple boards (including used ones), or switching letters in the middle, or adding new letters, or giving the letters some higher meaning, and so on.

Terry Orlick likes to restructure games to make them less competitive - he has published these in a series of books about cooperative games and sports. In one of my favorite examples, he changes King of the Mountain from a competitive game where only one king can be on top to a cooperative game where as many people as possible try to fit on top - then it becomes challenging teamwork. I also came across a book called New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger, editor of Games magazine, in which he changes hundreds of games.

pickup soccer

I've played soccer for as long as I can remember, and have come to appreciate it's international nickname, The Beautiful Game. My favorite setting is a pickup game - a random group of players on a borrowed field, who come together from across the globe. Some days I'm sure it's the most diverse gathering in the city.

We pass a ball around at first, and it's clear that we've loved the game for a long time - we're dancing, grinning, showing off new tricks.

When the game begins, our movements take on a new urgency - we're following instincts, we're quick, focused, clever, deceptive, graceful. We're communicating, sizing each other up, testing each other. There's strategy, teamwork, synchronicity, maybe even heroics.

At times it gets ugly... and fiercely competitive. We go from joy to pain to anger and back again. We start to foul each other more, we argue, we teach each other words in new languages. It's clear that something important is at stake.

At other times it can be profoundly cooperative, with its precise passing and graceful teamwork. Most fans love to see skilled players, with their death-defying bicycle kicks and clairvoyant saves, but they also love creative teamwork, with surprise give-and-go's and one-touch passes.

Over the years I've come to wonder if pickup soccer's balance of competition and cooperation is becoming increasingly rare in our society. That's what got me started on all this.


This blog is about competing, and the pros of cons of competition in schools, workplaces, economies, and games.